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Immigrants' US dollars paying off in homeland

In St. George's, on the island of Grenada, a gleaming new hospital is reaching the final stages of completion. In Onitsha, Nigeria, the once-crumbling Christ the King College building has been modernized and expanded.

In tiny pueblos, in the Mexican states of Zacatecas and Michoacan, churches named for the Virgin of Guadalupe are getting facelifts, dirt roads are being paved, and impoverished families are receiving truckloads of clothing and medicine.

And in the village of San Esteban Caterina, tucked away in central El Salvador, where basic medical supplies are often scarce, there are now canes and crutches and wheelchairs for patients unable to walk on their own.

The projects are not the work of governments, charitable foundations, or wealthy philanthropists. They are the realized dreams of immigrants living in the Boston area, who are carving out new lives in one country while donating part of their earnings to help reinvent another. Here, as in other immigrant enclaves across the United States, newcomers from Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia are banding together to raise money for their places of origin.

And the money, which some immigrants earn by mowing lawns, cleaning houses, laboring in factories, or harvesting fruit and vegetables, is bringing 21st century progress to towns devastated by wars, economic hardships and natural disasters -- or sometimes, simply forgotten by their own governments.

"I feel like it is my town and I need to help. I grew up there. Seventy percent of my family is still there," said Jose Acevedo, 39, who now lives in Attleboro, but spends much of his free time collecting wheelchairs, crutches, and medical supplies for San Esteban Caterina, the village where he was raised. "Thanks to this country, we are able to manage. But, there, some people don't have anything to eat."

Scholarships provided Like Acevedo, who formed the Comite Estebano Pro-Help after he returned home for a visit and realized that the town did not have one ambulance, many immigrants organize "hometown associations" that bring together immigrants who hail from the same village.

Others create alumni associations for schools a continent and, sometimes, an ocean away. Some organize clubs and committees dedicated to building libraries, supplying hospitals, or providing scholarships in towns and provinces they left behind decades ago.

It is a way for immigrants to stay connected to countries where their families often still live, a way of overcoming the separation brought by time, distance, and circumstance.

And, for those scraping out a meager living at low-paying jobs, the fund-raising associations also serve as a way to achieve a status back home that they may never attain here.

"In the United States, these are people who are practically invisible. They live in the shadows. But in their hometowns, they are entirely visible. By organizing here and sending money back, they find dignity and power," said Alex Rivera, a filmmaker who documented the work of Grupo Union, a hometown association in Newburgh, N.Y., whose members raised enough money to bring electricity, an ambulance, and a 2,000-seat baseball stadium to Boqueron, Mexico.

"Immigration has always been about two places," said Rivera, whose documentary film "The Sixth Section" aired on PBS stations last week. "But now immigration is not only changing America, it is also changing the countries people leave behind." Last year, according to a World Bank study, foreign workers sent $25 billion to Latin America and the Caribbean in 2002, followed by $16 billion sent to South Asia. In Mexico, the money sent by migrant workers living in the United States topped the amount spent by tourists or foreign investors, according to the Central Bank of Mexico.

The numbers may reach into the billions, but often, the fund-raising efforts start out with a few dollars and cents donated by immigrants with little to spare.

Acevedo, for example, raises money by selling Salvadoran pupusas -- cornmeal patties filled with meat and vegetables -- made by his wife. Each pupusa goes for $1; each dollar can buy nutritional supplements or medical supplies to help a needy patient in San Esteban.

Acevedo, who works as a manager in the admitting and receiving office at Franciscan Children's Hospital, has also received medical equipment donated by Franciscan, other local hospitals, and from the Rev. Bruce Ayers, who runs Helping Hands in Quincy.

"Living here, sometimes it is very hard for us," said Pierre Vic Doricent, 60, an immigrant from Arniquet, Haiti, who has been active in efforts to raise money to bring electricity, running water, and a library to his hometown. "The money is coming from our pockets and our friends' pockets."

Like many recently arrived immigrants, a large number of Haitians in the Boston area support two households -- one in this country, and another back home, explained Doricent, a computer technician now on disability leave.

Flood damage repaired Doricent and other natives of Arniquet living in New England and New York raised $1,450 to assist the town after it was nearly destroyed by flooding two years ago. The group raised another $3,550 to help build a library.

"It is our country; we have to try to make it better," said Doricent, who left Haiti in 1971. "I love my country and I love my hometown. Before I came here, I said that if I can ever find the way to help Haiti, and help my hometown, I will never stop doing that."

In earlier waves of immigration, when travel and communication between countries was difficult, time-consuming, and expensive, newcomers had little hope of returning home and little means of helping their hometown.

Now, globalization, faster transportation, and instant communications are closing the gap and blurring the lines between here and there.

"When an immigrant comes here, we never forget our home," said Beulah Fagan Providence, a Roxbury resident and member of the Dominica Bay State organization, which provides scholarships for students in her native country.

Often, the clubs and associations mirror the migration streams and the cultural patterns of the immigrants themselves. Hometown associations, for example, are particularly strong among immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and other Latin American countries, where people identify strongly with their town of birth.

Natives of the same town often resettle in clusters in this country.

Among immigrants from African countries, on the other hand, the fund-raising often centers around school communities and alumni associations.

The Christ the King College Alumni Association, for example, brings together immigrants who graduated from the boarding school in Nigeria .

"Just because you are here doesn't mean you sever ties," said N.T. Izuchi, a Boston resident and the New England chapter president of the association.

Over the last several years, Christ the King College has gone through a massive renovation project, financed almost entirely by contributions from alumni in the United States.

The New England chapter raised $11,000 in 2001 alone, said Izuchi, who tracks the progress of the renovation on the alumni association website.

"You have to think about people as living with their feet in two places. The town in Mexico, in the Dominican Republic is as important, if not more important than where they are here," said Peggy Levitt, an assistant professor of sociology at Wellesley College who has studied hometown associations.

Not only is it easier to travel, and to wire money home, it is also easier to see glaring needs that many immigrants themselves did not notice until they left for the United States, then looked back with new eyes.

"I didn't see it before because I was part of it. I did not have money; I didn't care about having money," said America Velasquez, who belongs to the Boston-based Comite Centro Americano de Emergencias, which raises money for disaster relief in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and other Latin American countries. "But now, when I go back, it's so obvious. There is so much hunger, so much poverty. That's why I try to return with my hands full."

Last week, Velasquez traveled to Guatemala, her native country, and El Salvador to bring the latest shipment of medical supplies and other donations to towns destroyed in 1998 by Hurricane Mitch.

31 new houses built The Comite Centro Americano, which helped raise $260,000 for disaster relief following Mitch, sent enough money to build 31 new houses in the blighted areas, and over the years, has helped financed improvements in the structures, including the addition of running water.

"When you go back and forth to Grenada and the other islands, you see so much distress," noted Carol Leggett, a Foxborough resident whose family comes from Grenada. "So it's very important for me to be part of the reciprocity, to give back to my country and to do what my parents and grandparents could not have done."

Leggett is president of the Grenada Social and Cultural Organization, which donated $12,000 for the construction of New Grenada General Hospital in St. George's.

The bulk of the money was raised at a yearly black-tie banquet held in the Boston area to mark the island's independence day.

This year, a construction site that was once "sticks and stones and water" is now the location of the nearly completed hospital, where one room has been named in honor of the people who helped build it.

It is called the Boston Room.

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